In the year 70 AD a physician named Pedanius Dioscorides published a five-volume encyclopedia about herbal medicine. “Within his papers is a detailed description of the use of juniper berries steeped in wine to combat chest ailments,”. 1600 years later, the Dutch began producing a spirit called “genever.” It essentially consisted of a malt wine base and a healthy amount of juniper berries to mask its harsh flavor. It was, of course, a “medicinal” liquid like its predecessors. By the 1700s, however, it had taken on a new form: Gin.
Anyone who has read a few of my posts on here may have noticed that I do occasionally mention a love of gin. However, one has to be very careful about this. For my part I do not consider myself to be remotely close to being an alcoholic! My taste for gin extends to approximately 1 or at most 2 double G &Ts a week – some weeks even less than that! So, for the moment at least, I don’t think I am in any danger of over doing it.
History, however takes a different view. The first known written use of the word ‘gin’ appears in a 1714 book called ‘The Fable of the Bees, or Private Vices, Publick Benefits’ by Bernard Mandeville. He wrote, ‘The infamous liquor, the name of which deriv’d from Juniper-Berries in Dutch, is now, by frequent use… shrunk into a Monosyllable, intoxicating Gin.’ The suggestion is that the British were too drunk to pronounce genever so they abbreviated the word to ‘gen,’ which eventually gets anglicized to the word that we use today.”
The beginnings of choral music are a little less clear. Some would say the earliest examples date back to Ancient Greece. The Delphic Hymns of the 2nd century BC survive in reasonable fragments. Recent scholarship has shown it likely they were both written for performance at the Athenian Pythaides in 128 BCE.
The earliest masses, such as the four-part setting by the 14th-century French composer Guillaume de Machaut, were intended for soloists. Although choirs existed throughout Europe in the Middle Ages, their role was restricted to unison singing of plainchant. Polyphony was the exclusive preserve of soloists.
700 years later and some might argue that singing was enjoying its most popular period ever. Some research carried out in 2019 suggested that singing in a choir was the most popular past time in the UK, second only to sport. Similarly, according to data from Kantar’s Worldpanel division, gin is officially the nation’s favourite spirit (having overtaken whisky) – over a quarter of the population have purchased Gin (including flavoured/gin liqueurs) in the last 12 months, up from just over 10%.
Whether these two statistics are in any way interchangeable I will leave you to decide for yourself. With 2020 already being a very challenging year for singers, I am not suggesting you should swap your choir for a gin bar. However, if we have learnt anything from recent events, it is that life is there for the taking. Even in these very challenging circumstances, it is important to keep enjoying things where you can. Just remember, sing responsibly!